Thursday, July 7, 2011

Facebook for Dead People

The stop at the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday wasn't on the initial plan. But it proved to be an informative and interesting diversion -- so much so that we got booted out at closing time without seeing about a third of the museum.

National Portrait Gallery
The Tudor and Elizabethan section, of course, contains original portraits of all the main players of that era. But an even cooler feature is the "New Research" tag on the information placards that describe scientific revelations about the age of the paintings. They all seem like great plot points for the forthcoming season of CSI: Art Galleries. For instance:
  • Big blue find. The portrait of Catherine of Aragon -- the first wife of Henry VIII -- was thought to have been painted while she was alive. But alas, the forensic experts discovered the presence of "Prussian Blue," a hue not created until nearly a century after Catherine's death.
  • Wood-n't you know. They also examined the wood beneath the portrait and through carbon testing, can estimate the age in which the tree was felled. In the case of Anne Boleyn, that method confirmed that her portrait was painted while she was alive.
  • Painting by numbers. On several of these 16th century portraits, researchers X-rayed the paintings only to discover detailed pencil sketches that served as templates underneath the paint. In other cases, they found charcoal dots that were the result of using a template to lay out complex or exact details, such as the shirt design on Sir Henry Lee's 1568 portrait and a life-sized drawing of Henry VIII that was used as the template for a wall mural at Whitehall Castle.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the museum, many portraits came with tantalizing anecdotes. Some highlights:
  • The placard with the Victorian portrait of Lady Colin Campbell described the subject as a journalist and socialite who separated from Lord Campbell after a notorious court case. But it goes no further. Well, a summary of a recent biography of Lady Campbell (titled Victorian Sex Goddess) says she won legal separation from Lord Campbell in a long-running divorce case after proving that he knowingly gave her syphilis.
  • Another interesting Victorian one: The portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson shows the author seemingly relaxed. That was because, according to the placard, he spent the Sunday afternoon of the sitting at artist William Blake Richmond's house with other friends. And the artist and author traded ghost stories, gave their thoughts about the police and talked about suicide as Richmond painted.
  • Worth it for the title: This portrait of musician Paul McCartney was painted by British artist Sam Walsh, a friend of McCartney's brother, Mike. Hence the title, Mike's Brother.

We actually enjoyed the experience so much that we went back again on Wednesday to see the rest.

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